Jonathan Cilley

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Jonathan Cilley
Succeeded by Edward Robinson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maine's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1837 – February 24, 1838
Preceded by Jeremiah Bailey
Member of the Maine Senate
In office
Personal details
Born July 2, 1802
Nottingham, New Hampshire, USA
Died February 24, 1838 (aged 35)
Bladensburg, Md., USA
Spouse(s) Deborah Prince Cilley
Profession Politician, Lawyer, Editor

Jonathan Cilley (July 2, 1802 – February 24, 1838) was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maine. He served part of one term in the 25th Congress. He died in office at Bladensburg, Md. as the result of being challenged to fight a duel with Congressman William J. Graves, a colleague from Kentucky. Graves, an experienced marksman, had issued the challenge after Cilley had criticized a newspaper article written by Graves's political ally, New York City editor James Watson Webb.


Jonathan Cilley was a member of one of the leading families of northern New England. A grandson of Major General Joseph Cilley and nephew of Bradbury Cilley, he was born in Nottingham, New Hampshire. He attended Bowdoin College and was a member of the famed class of 1825, which included future literary giants Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. While at Bowdoin he also became close friends with future President Franklin Pierce, a member of the class of 1824. Deciding to stay in Maine, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1828, practicing in Thomaston, Maine.

In 1829 he married Deborah Prince, the daughter of local businessman Hezekiah Prince. Jonathan and Deborah had five children, two of whom died very young. Their surviving children were Greenleaf (b. 1829), Jonathan Prince (b. 1835). and Julia (b. 1837). Cilley edited the Thomaston Register from 1829–1831 and represented Thomaston in the Maine Legislature from 1831–1836, serving as speaker of the state House in his final two years of service there. He was then elected to the United States Congress, but did not complete his first term.

Fatal duel[edit]

Cilley died in office as a sacrifice to the bitter political climate that surrounded the Twenty-fifth Congress. With the Democratic Party, Cilley's party, strongly at odds with the opposition Whig Party, supporters of both sides mobilized the newspapers favoring each party. One of the pillars of the Whig Party was the New York Courier and Enquirer, an East Coast newspaper edited by James Watson Webb.

Democrats, including Cilley, considered Webb's coverage of Congress to be biased and unfair, and Cilley vented some of his party's bitterness in remarks made on the House floor. Webb, who considered himself insulted by Cilley's remarks, and unable to respond within the House chamber because he was not an elected member of the House, persuaded a Whig friend, the Kentucky marksman William J. Graves, to challenge Cilley to a duel. Duelling was prohibited within the boundaries of the District of Columbia by federal law, so the participants and their seconds arranged to meet at the Bladensburg dueling grounds, across the state line in Maryland. The meeting on the "field of honor" was scheduled to take place on February 24, 1838.

When the duel took place, Graves fatally wounded Cilley by shooting him through the femoral artery. The unfortunate congressman bled to death on the field. Jonathan was buried in Elm Grove Cemetery in Thomaston, Maine.[1]


In 1838, after Cilley's death, longtime friend Nathaniel Hawthorne published two biographical sketches of the fallen congressman. The lawmaker's colleagues paid tribute to him in 1839 by passing a federal law strengthening the prohibition against dueling in Washington, D.C. Dueling itself was already forbidden within the District; the 1839 law created the new criminal offenses of issuing a challenge to a duel, or accepting a challenge, within the boundaries of the District, even if the duel itself was meant to take place outside the District.

Jonathan Cilley's brother Joseph Cilley served as a U.S. Senator from New Hampshire in 1846-1847. Jonathan Cilley's successor as speaker of the Maine House in 1837 was Hannibal Hamlin, later Vice President of the United States. Cilley's son, Jonathan Prince Cilley, became a Brevetted Brigadier General in the Union Army during the Civil War.


  1. ^ "Jonathan Cilley (1802 - 1838) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 21 May 2015. 
  • United States Congress. "Jonathan Cilley (id: C000395)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. 
  • Maine League of Historical Societies and Museums (1970). Doris A. Isaacson, ed. Maine: A Guide 'Down East'. Rockland, Me: Courier-Gazette, Inc. p. 261. 
  • Memoirs and Services of Three Generations: General Joseph Cilley, First New hampshire Line. War of the Revolution; Johnathan Longfellow, Father of sarah, wife of General Joseph Cilley; Colonel Joseph Cilley, U.S. Senator and Officer in the War of 1812; Honorable Johnathan Cilley, Member of Congress form Maine; Commander Greenleaf Cilley, War with Mexico and War of 1861; General Johnathan P. Cilley, First Maine Cavalry, War of the Rebellion Reprint from the Courier-gazette, Rockland Maine, 1909
  • Biographical Sketch of Jonathan Cilley by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The United States Democratic review (J.& H.G. Langley, etc., New York), Sept. 1838, vol. 3 issue 9, pp. 69–77 Available online at [1] (accessed March 8, 2008).
  • Political Portraits with Pen and Pencil. No. IX. Jonathan Cilley by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The United States Democratic review (J.& H.G. Langley, etc., New York), Sept. 1838, vol. 3 issue 9, pp. 67–69. Available online at [2] (accessed March 8, 2008).

External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Jeremiah Bailey
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maine's 3rd congressional district

March 4, 1837 – February 24, 1838
Succeeded by
Edward Robinson